Support in physics
The debate between materialism and consciousness has been going on for a while. Democratus in 400 BC popularised the theory of the atomic universe. That it exists in and of itself and needs nothing else to explain it. Plato’s philosophy of idealism however assumed that the basic underlying structure of everything was not the atom but ‘abstract mental forms that determine the object’s properties’. Most science until relatively recently has explored the material, atomic model of the universe. Einstein despite many achievements in life spent his final 28 years in vain searching for the theory of everything based on an atomic universe. Although his early discoveries led to the field of quantum mechanics he was uneasy with it and found it ‘spooky’. He desperately wanted to find a way to ‘complete’ quantum mechanics it so it made sense.
The famous double slit experiment exposes the dual properties of light – that it can manifest as both a wave and a particle. Light shone at a barrier containing two slits produces a diffraction pattern behind it as would be expected of a wave as in (b). Einstein however, in studying the photoelectric effect realised that light exhibited momentum as would a particle. When conducting the double slit experiment by firing individual ‘particles’ of light or photons at the barrier one might expect each particle to pass through one of the two slits and create the pattern as in (a) where the particles bunch up behind each slit. The actual pattern observed is still (b). Schrödinger came up with the concept of a probability wave to describe the effect. Each particle has equal probability of passing through either slit and these two probable paths interfere with each other on the other side of the barrier to create the interference pattern. However, if a detector is placed at the slits to determine which slit a particle passes through, the probability wave collapses and the photons behave like particles and the pattern in (a) is observed. If the detectors are left in place but no measurement is taken, the wave pattern in B is still observed. The act of measurement and collecting data seems to change the way light works. The same effect is seen when firing electrons at the slits. A molecule composed of 381 atoms is the biggest particle successfully tested so far. Eugene Wigner, a Nobel prize winning physicist and one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics said ‘it will remain remarkable in what ever way our future concepts may develop that the very study of the external world led to the scientific conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate universal reality.’
The quantum eraser variation on this experiment is even more intriguing. The photons are fired at the two slits as usual and have equal probability of taking either path. When detectors are placed at the slits observing which path they take, the probability wave breaks down and as expected, the interference pattern is not observed. However if the ‘which path’ information is then erased, the interference pattern resumes. This suggests that the collapse of the probability wave is not simply due to the measurement but rather whether the information exists.
The delayed choice quantum eraser variation on this first conducted in 1999, gets weirder. Photons are fired at the double slits and then separated into their quantum entangled pairs. The idea of ‘quantum entanglement’ and non-locality in physics puzzled even Einstein who dubbed it ‘spooky action at a distance’. It describes the apparent ability of ‘entangled’ particles to instantaneously ‘know’ about each other’s quantum state, even when separated by large distances – even light years. The path to the detector of one half of the pair is delayed relative to the other via a series of reflections. The interference pattern exhibited by each twin in the entangled pair is the same even though one is delayed in time relative to the other. The twin taking the shorter path appears to ‘know’ whether it’s other twin is being detected (and therefore whether it will appear as a wave or a particle) even though it happens in the future. Almost as if the universe instantaneously arranges it’s particles in anticipation of future events.
Physicist Tom Campbell interprets the results of these experiments as evidence of a virtual reality. He proposes that along with the 3-D universe we perceive, there exists a meta-layer of pure information, information being the underlying building blocks of reality and manipulatable by consciousness. When a measurement is made, information then exists and affects the behaviour of the physical universe. The ‘spooky action at a distance’ and the seeming ability to move and ‘communicate’ in time makes sense from the perspective of the information exchange taking place within a meta-layer rather than the space time constraints of the physical universe.
Theories of a virtual reality model such as Tom Campbell’s information layer or a computer simulation programmed by an entity other than ourselves suggest this and other phenomena in physics as evidence.
• We appear to exist in a digital universe (rather than analogue) composed of discrete ‘things’. Things in each class seem to have the same properties. All electrons, for example have the same properties. This would be consistent with a digital universe that was computable.
• A maximum speed (the speed of light) is a curiosity explainable by a pixelated universe. It could be seen as the time taken to transfer information from one ‘pixel’ to another.
• The warping of space time by dense mass such as a black hole (extremely dense information) as predicted by general relativity might be likened to a slow data bottleneck in computing.
• The paradox of the big bang might be explainable in terms of a ‘computer program’ that would have had a start point or boot up.
The way observation appears to affect physical behaviour as in the double slit experiment is sometimes likened to the way a computer generated VR game only renders the complex graphics when the gamer is looking at them. Outside the game’s field of view, the information exists though isn’t rendered until observed. This is to suggest that reality doesn’t actually manifest unless it is being observed (although the information does exist such as in Campbell’s meta-layer)
Are we living in a virtual reality?
The idea of living in a simulation or virtual reality seems to create an adverse reaction in us. It suggests that the reality we experience is some pale comparison to a real reality that exists elsewhere. This might just be an existential crisis driven by our ego. The idea of differentiating between a real and virtual reality might just be a product of our limited understanding. Consciousness and perception might be all that really exists. On some level, the universe certainly looks like an elaborate computer program. What then do we mean by the term simulation? Something that has been programmed from the outside or some reality being programmed on the fly by our own consciousness in accordance with the anthropic principle? Are we post-human lifeforms living in some kind of matrix style pod perceiving a simulated world? Or are we virtual entities running some kind of artificial intelligence? Are we programmed by a consciousness derived from our descendants, some completely other class of being or our own selves? If reality is really just information and the material universe merely a reflection created by our consciousness, we are in a sense, living in virtual reality. The important thing maybe, is not whether we are in the simulation or not or whether consciousness proceeds matter or vice versa. All theories and ideas are just models. What interests me and what I think is of most beneficial to us is that exploring our experience of reality from these differing perspectives opens our minds and can give great insights into consciousness and the nature of reality. Spend a day or two interacting with the world on the assumption that it’s a simulation or that our consciousness is producing it. Simply shifting our perspective can be enough to loosen the grip that our habitual thinking has on us and experience the world in a different way.